Saturday, February 28, 2015

Letters Left Unsent: A Review

I’m a bit late on this – although I was given a beta copy to review, his book was launched on Amazon in November. Check it out here!

This collection of essays loosely drawn into a book by author and blogger J., depicts snapshots in the life and travels of a humanitarian aid worker.  Unsurprisingly, it’s not all parties on the Serengeti.  Like most jobs, it has ups and downs: long hours in dusty hotels, stuffy conference rooms, morally difficult decisions, poor coordination. Letters Left Unsent is the distillation of thoughts that come from twenty years of these experiences, for better and worse.

I’ve been following (rather, lurking) J’s blog Tales from the Hood and AidSpeak for a few years now. I check in when I need inspiration, provocation and a little moral outrage. Being mired in the day to day realities of life “in the field” (e.g. trying to get fuel into six cars and eighteen motorcycles on weekly basis while keeping rats from chewing up seed corn in storage and spilled generator diesel from starting the kitchen on fire), it feels so good to read about someone else’s thoughts, opinions and struggles with the Aid Industry writ large. Reading his words are like hitting a release valve. Throughout his book, I found myself nodding and laughing, relieved that someone finally understands, finally can advise. (I found his comments on having an exit strategy particularly useful...)

For those considering a career as an aid worker, this book gives a straight picture of what to expect. It even includes the Aid Work Suitability Self-Test, which is as snarky as it is real to life. Outsiders may bristle at some assertions throughout the book (development is for professionals, not volunteers) that may sound elitist and exclusionary on the surface, but I assure you it is not. I do wish there was more of a narrative arc, but I'm more a fiction person than I am an essayist, so it may be personal preference.

As it stands, Letters Left Unsent is a collection of essays, blog posts that represent a tome to development work, one that gives voice to a little acknowledged non-Hollywoodized perspective of humanitarian aid.

It is well worth the read.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

This is a blog post.

Actual elephant crap (half dried)
This is a blog post about writer’s block, because I have it. Sometimes there is nothing pithy to say. But sometimes, you just have to keep going. You know that saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all?” That’s elephant crap.  Keep going.

I made a commitment to myself that I would update this blog every Sunday in 2015. This is what that commitment looks like. I’m only mildly sorry that it sucks to read. FYI commitment is sometimes not pretty (also, like elephant crap).

It’s not like I haven’t been busy. This week was crazy with work, more electrical issues with the house, Robert Mugabe’s 91st birthday, my fiancĂ© climbing Kilimanjaro and coming home safely. Friday night I think I had two nervous breakdowns 1) because I was exhausted and 2) because who changes the locks on the office door and then goes home for the weekend, leaving you inside, and doesn’t tell you? OMFG.

I am practicing patience. I am dreaming for the future. I am preparing for some terrific and terrifying life changes. I am getting married, interviewing for jobs, and getting ready to move (again) and I of course decided it all NEEDED TO BE DONE THIS WEEK. Life is dull, tedious, joyful and hilarious all at once. I am breathing in my nose and out my mouth and trying not to swallow another fly like I did in the backyard this morning while picking fresh lemons.
Three dung beetles, fighting over crap.

Some day (soon, I hope) my writing will be better. It will not be a pile of crap. If I keep at it, like the dung beetle, I might roll it in to a little ball over half my size and push it along until I can get it home and live off it for a long, long time. Until then, I will keep going. I will keep going until that pile of crap is something useful and beautiful and that causes a Land Rover of white people with enormous cameras to stop and peer at a pile of poop, literally, rolling away from them.

Because that's a story, too. 

Until then, this is a blog post.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

This is Rainy Season?

Last week, I visited a farmer in southwest Zambia - Kazungula district to be exact. This area along the Chobe river between Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia is known to be drought prone. I was told it has something to do with the dry winds from the Kalahari desert, but I'm not a meteorologist, so I don't know. However, in terms of drought, it looks like this year will be no different. 

The maize on our farmer's field was between three and five feet tall, some of it already tasseled, forced into early maturity by the dry weather conditions. Many leaves were already starting to curl and brown. It was hard to see that it would grow much taller. In a good year, he said, he could get upwards of 80 bags (50 kgs each) of maize from his two hectares.  

A little while on, he showed us his ground nut (peanut) field (right). It had been planted after the first rains, which had  come late (January). I might not have gotten this down right in my notes, but I believe he said it had been three weeks since the last precipitation. I asked him what he would do if the rains didn't come. 

"There's nothing we can do," he said. "We can't control the weather." 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

I walk the line

This week, strange new waves of feelings have hit me. I’ve been hosting visitors for work and they are hilarious. One is a former beauty queen and one is a former major league baseball player.  It’s hard not to smile as they react to commonplace things (look at the baby on that woman’s back!), or ask completely inane questions in very loud voices (what is the name of that brown bird? You know, the one with the tail?)

While they are both extraordinarily sweet people, they could not be more opposite from the development set. He has biceps as big as my thighs. She has more highlights than a sports reel. It’s hard not to be a bit jealous and frustrated with people who are so shiny and new, oblivious to their affluence. I want to tell them to tone it down. Take off the Rolex. Put the I-Phone away (or at least, crack the screen so it matches everyone else’s). But, it’s not their problem that they are out of context. I must look the same way to my Malawian colleagues. So I keep my mouth shut.

(Also, I can’t wait to get highlights).

Although I’ve been living in Malawi for nearly two years, I often wonder when this place will feel like “home”. Being with these ridiculously rich and carefully coiffed individuals makes me realize that, while not exactly a local, I have come to live here in my own way. No power? No problem. No petrol? No worries. We’ll make a plan.

As much as I complain about the hardships, these crazy experiences and power outages and frustrations have become a permanent part of my life’s landscape. I can snarl and rail and weep and gnash, but this place has railroaded me into acceptance (and even love) with the patience of having nothing better to do. Like a mother with a trying child, I am annoyed, but I love. Oh, how I love.

This is my home.

To share this space with someone new – especially someone so clearly out of their natural habitat and with whom I have little in common - makes me feel vulnerable. What if they don’t like jazz at Chameleon’s? What if they get sick? – I want them to understand their new context and join this crazy club. But that’s not going to happen in 10 days. So, I show them the “best” of what we’ve got, knowing that it’s not the “best” by any international standard, wanting them to know I know it’s not the “best” but that it’s still a good life. Most days I go home, feeling like a poor church mouse. 

I don’t want to be that development person who makes others feel unworthy and uncomfortable because they haven’t lived in South Sudan for 10 years. This isn’t about “field experience” or “street cred”. It’s about being in the middle of two worlds and asked to be the cultural ambassador for both. I want people to know how hard the Malawians are trying; how eager they were to welcome visitors; how concerned they were when they home early because they are sick. I want Malawians to know that Americans are trying; we don’t all wear Rolexes; how much we really do want to help. No one should live without access to clean water and electricity (and education! And health care! And…and…and..)

These are the waves of emotions I’ve been rolling with all week. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Itch

The mosquito net had to come down. Against the wall, an air con leaked semi-cool air, feeble and ineffective against the humidity. The tiny room sagged and sighed. Only the ceiling fan was able to stir the atmosphere. It hung awkwardly on a loose eye hook above the bed, obstructed by the mosquito net from making relaxed deliberate strokes.  Given the option for malaria or a breeze, we decide to take our chances.

It had been a long day. No power. No water. A six-hour escape drive to the shore, arriving only at dark. Lying there side by side, we tried not to touch each other.  

The stale air undulated, washing against us like waves from a too warm shore. I drifted to sleep, watching the ceiling fan wobble a few feet from our faces.  We kept it on low not to tempt fate, but I wondered idly what it will feel like when it fell on our faces. And what would malaria feel like? Would I be sleepy? Mal-aria, meaning “bad air”. It was a possibility.

These anxieties tickled me, but like whispers through a door, weren’t quite sharp enough to arouse concern. The air was too thick for them, so I drifted away.

I woke a few hours later, needing a toilet. It was a surprise not to get caught like a fish in the ever-present mosquito net.  I reveled in that freedom, but not the missing toilet seat. I swam back to bed, falling in mid breast-stroke.

Suddenly, my ankle stung. A jelly fish! No, a mosquito! It’s the only thing that has the energy.  I kicked my feet and try to wash back into slumber, but it was too late. The itch had begun. Still clinging to sleep like the shoreline, I used my big toe as scratching tool. If I didn’t move my upper body, I could still float away.

But then - again! A different ankle. I waved my foot to warn them off again, but it should’ve been a white flag. Another gets my shin, then my forearm.  I felt a line of bites along my calf.  Each pinch pierces the veil of slumber, needling me into consciousness. There could be one, or a hundred.

Like a shark to the surface, I snap. I thrash upright into the darkness, abandoning sleep altogether. They are impossible to intimidate, but at least I can scare them.

My partner snores beside me.

The overhead fan whirs: “wud-wud-wud-wud”.

As the silence settles back in around me, I feel the itch creep around the delicate bones of my foot. It’s the spot they like best, the most vulnerable, where the lacework of my veins is closest to the surface. 

Having nothing else to do, I scratch with vengeance, as if to get back at the little beasts who put them there. It feels so good, giving in to that temptation to itch, finding that line between relief, satisfaction and pain. But I stay a little too long and end up drawing blood.